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To Stretch, or Not to Stretch … That Is the Question

Posted by Filed Under: Health & Fitness, Running Injuries, Science and Research

coach-tammy.pngWe all know to do our stretches, right? I mean, we struggle to find time to do them, we don’t really want to do them, but we know we should do them … right? Well, maybe not. At least that’s what the recent research is pointing to for the sports included in triathlon.

Before we get started, let’s go over some basics on the muscle/tendon relationship. Our tendons are more involved in contractions than previously understood. The muscle actually doesn’t move much at all, but builds up tension and has the tendon do the majority of the work. Think of the tendon as a spring; the muscle contracts or relaxes to control the tension of this “spring,” which then facilitates joint movement.

There are ideal flexibility levels for certain types of movements. Depending on the activity you are participating in, you will want more or less flexibility or “stretch” in the working muscle/tendon unit (MTU). If you want to transfer power (swim, bike, run), less flexibility is better because a more elastic tendon will actually absorb energy. That means you have to generate more power to get the same result as someone with a less elastic MTU. This may be why static stretching prior to activity has been shown to compromise muscle strength 5 percent to 30 percent. In fact, as little as two minutes of static stretching can impair power performance (1).

In addition to detrimental performance effects, there is evidence that stretching does not protect against injury, and prior to exercise may actually increase the rate of muscle injury. There are several theories as to why this is the case, ranging from decreased stability from increased range of motion created by stretching, to increased pain tolerance leading to tissue damage we could otherwise avoid (4).

In place of stretching, increasing muscle temperature via submaximal exercise is a more appropriate way to warm-up for your activities, as increasing the internal temperature of your working muscles has been shown to increase resistance to muscle tear (2), with the added benefit of increasing the rate of oxygen transfer to working muscles. Studies that attempted to isolate the influence of stretching prior to activity have shown decreased performance with stretching alone versus a combination of submaximal efforts and stretching, which indicates that stretching was the culprit to the decreased performance (3).

While evidence seems to be pointing toward keeping away from pre-exercise stretching for low-intensity or limited stretch-shortening cycles (swim, bike, run), it seems that a regular stretching routine done away from your regular activity does help in injury prevention. You see, stretching results in the same hypertrophy you get from strength training! Stretching will cause minute tears (just like weight training, but not as extreme), which then have to be healed, resulting in larger, stronger muscle. Also, once you have an injury, stretching facilitates the healing process. When a muscle or tendon is injured, materials are deposited at the site to rebuild the damaged tissue. These materials are deposited in a clump, and when you stretch (or get a massage) these materials are encouraged to line up in the injury, and voilĂ , the healing begins! This is the “scar tissue” you’ve probably heard your massage therapist mention.

In summary, the evidence seems to suggest that stretching pre-activity could decrease your performance ability, and increase your chance of injury. Stretching post-activity doesn’t seem to have an impact either way, while stretching away from your other activities could be beneficial. The bottom line, as I always say, is to know your own body, and do what works for you. It is my goal to simply educate you in that process.

References:

1. Young WB, Behm D. Should Static Stretching be Use During a Warm-up for Strength and Power Activities? Nat’l Strength and Cond. Assoc. 24(6):33-37. 2002.
2. Knudson D. Stretching During Warm-up. Do we have enough Evidence? J. Phys. Ed. Rec. Dance. 70(7):24-27. 1999.
3. Knudson D, Bennett K, Corn R, Leick D, Smith C. Acute Effects of Stretching are not Evident in the Kinematics of the Vertical jump. J. Strength Cond. Res. 15(1):98-101. 2001.
4. Thacker, SB, Glchrist J, Stroup DF, Kimsey Jr, CD. The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: A systematic Review of the Literature. Official Jrnl of the Amer College of Sports Med. 371-378, 2004.



11 Comments
  1. Adeel on November 13th at 10:47 am

    I can’t say I’ve ever found that stretching hurt my performances, but I stopped stretching sometime this summer to save time and I’ve never looked back. I tend not to be as sore without stretching than I do when stretching, except for the odd tight muscle. I also pay more attention to running, especially in running a warm-up that’s going to get me ready for a race or workout.

  2. IHateToast on November 13th at 5:26 pm

    coach tammy,
    does stretching away from exercise mean … like now after i post this? i’ve been trying that. i know that has helped my calves a lot. how long before or after an exercise is “away?”
    i have also found that yoga poses have done more for me than the traditional stretches i’ve seen runners do. and i don’t care what the research says, a good 2-3 sun salutations before a race works for me. … but nothing more. i also saw a guy drop and do the Chinese splits midway during a marathon. don’t know how it helped him, but it certainly hurt me.
    thanks, coach tammy. can i go home now and watch gilligan’s island?

  3. Coach Tammy on November 14th at 8:20 am

    Good question Katie…er, I mean ihatetoast ;)

    “Away” means done as a separate workout, not directly before nor directly after gettin’ your run on.

    Now, please go home and watch Gilligan!

  4. Jeanne on November 14th at 7:03 pm

    ihatetoast, good one about the splits! not sure what a chinese split was, but it sounds painful.

    so coach tammy, what i got out of this, is I don’t have to stretch anymore after running!!! Yippee!!!

    But how often do i do stretching as a separate workout? like yoga 2x week or something?

  5. Coach Tammy on November 14th at 7:47 pm

    Hi Jeanne,
    You must experiment, and find what works for your body. There is no one correct answer. It depends on how much flexibility you already have (or don’t have), and how your body reacts to the work. Personally, I have always been very flexible, and I have found that not stretching at all (unless I feel a tight muscle or injury coming) works for me. That may not be the case for you.

    Thanks, Coach Tammy

  6. Perry on November 15th at 8:39 am

    I’ve completed 21 marathons and have almost never stretched before or afterwards. I’ve also been lucky enough not to have any significant injuries. To me, stretching is overrated.

  7. thodarumm on November 15th at 11:24 am

    Thanks for the info! I don’t feel guilty about not doing the pre-workout stretching anymore.

    Personally, I don’t stretch as much as I should. But, I definitely have noticed that a minor amount of stretching after running definitely helps my sore legs, my hip flexors on a long run and my calves. I try to do one or two Yoga days a week, but when time is tight, that goes out first from my exercise regimen. Since then, the only way I have been able to run is to incorporate small amounts of stretching after running ( I mainly like to do runners lunge, hamstring stretches on the treadmill or with my foot up and Yogish quad stretches) and love the short Sage Yoga podcasts specifically designed for post- workout stretching.

    I guess, like you wrote, it is highly dependent on the individual’s body type.

  8. Coach Tammy on November 16th at 1:26 pm

    Exactly, and it sounds like you are in-tune w/what your body needs. That is outstanding!

    Stretching post-workout has not been shown to increase injury rates, so I would say if it feels good, do it!

    Thanks for the comment.
    Coach Tammy

  9. bold on November 17th at 9:59 am

    well-written and informative article.

    i did NO stretching in my last 16 weeks to Ironman.

    personally, i’d like to see more of Coach Tammy…

  10. brent on November 27th at 11:40 am

    interesting. i stopped feeling guilty about not stretching after i read a profile in runner’s world about James Carville (it was the “i’m a runner” or something section on the back inside cover). he said he almost never stretches and he has been running for a very long time. anyway, i rarely stretched during my recent training for my 2nd marathon. i was injury free during training. on the other hand, stretching before lifting weights seems to help me with DOMS and other weightlifiting-related injuries.

  11. lazy « Accidentally French on April 21st at 6:47 pm

    [...] info about stretching here. It’s from 2006, so it’s not exactly new, but it’s news to me! I suppose [...]

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